Climate change and alpine ecosystems

Landskapsbilde av fjell med snø og innsjø i bakgrunnen

We need relevant research to establish a knowledge basis for conservation and management of plant and animal populations in changing alpine ecosystems.

Not only the high latitudes, but also high-elevation areas are particularly susceptible and disproportionately impacted by climate change. This special exposure to climate change, on the one hand, provides an excellent base for the detection of related early-warning signals. On the other hand, it is also of major concern: Mountain ecosystems, within Norway covering roughly 30 % of the mainland, represent invaluable resources, in terms of both biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide.

For conservation and management, a docu¬mentation and an understanding of how these changing alpine ecosystems are functioning, as well as a disentanglement of the different interacting drivers is key. Such a task is challenged by several reasons that, consequently, also constitute the focal areas of our research:

  • The interplay of, among others, local topography, snow cover, soil moisture and near-surface temperatures results in a pronounced local heterogeneity and fine-scaled differentiation of alpine landscapes. These spatially fine-scaled patterns, commonly well below 100 m2 in size, urgently call for the utilization of very high-resolution remote sensing data and derivatives thereof. Such data, however, are rarely available across vast alpine landscapes.
  • Climate is key, all the way from a species’ physiology towards its realized geographical distribution. The near-surface climate experienced by alpine biota, however, is unlinked from those coarse-scaled observational data and scenarios commonly available. We urgently need to establish the missing link between available coarse-scaled data and such data being truly ecologically relevant to avoid erroneous models when assessing the ecological impacts of a changing climate. 
  • Over the past decades, widespread implications of warming on (arctic-)alpine vegetation have been reported, including an upslope migration and increasing species richness of vascular plants. However, what exactly drives the observed spatio-temporal patterns in species distribution, resultant vegetation types, primary productivity, and phytomass? 
  • The greening and shrubification of arctic-alpine environments is reckoned as one of the clearest examples of the terrestrial impacts of climate change. It causes a variety of feedbacks on biodiversity, pasture quality, and the surface energy budget. Though a positive correlation between shrub growth and temperature is well established, especially the landscape-scale drivers of this phenomenon remain poorly understood.
  • Changes in alpine vegetation have the potential to affect the local climate conditions. For instance, the replacement of lichen by shrubs leads to a reduced surface albedo, which increases the locally available net radiation and represents a local positive feedback to the impact of global warming.  Our understanding of these important local vegetation-climate feedbacks is however still limited, implying an urgent need to systematically study the effects of vegetation changes on microclimatic conditions in the alpine environment.
  • Herbivores, like lemmings, ptarmigans and the iconic species of the North, the reindeer, depend on the supporting services of alpine ecosystems, i.e. their primary productivity, but also exert strong effects on ecosystem properties and processes. A mechan¬istic understanding of the drivers and limitations of range use, as well as the available resources, is key to a successful conservation and a pro-active management under the challenges of climate change.

Figur med sirkler og piler som viser climate change som forklares i den engelske teksten.
Based on observations, we apply models to explore the relationships between climate variables and the distribution/growth/area use of selected species, representing diverse but interrelated ecological combinations and trophic levels. Our principal research area, the Hardangervidda, is the largest European mountain plateau, it has the largest wild reindeer population in Europe, and several rare and red-listed plant species and nature types are to be found. The area also includes a climate gradient from west to east and therefore represents a rare self-control sample.

Main cooperative partners and network


  • National Institute of Public Health (FHI)/ Åshild Andreassen, Arnulf Soleng
  • Norges geologiske undersøkelse (NGU) / Knut Stalsberg, Lena Rubensdotter
  • Norsk Institutt for kulturminneforskning (NIKU) / Vibeke Vandrup Martens
  • Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)/ Nina Eide, Erlend B. Nilsen
  • Norwegian Meteorological Institute (NMI)/ Inger Hanssen Bauer
  • Norwegian University for Life Sciences (NMBU)/ Knut Røed, Olav Hjeljord, Reidar Borgstrøm, Øystein Holand, Snorre Stuen, Johan Asplund
  • Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)/ Knut Alfredsen
  • Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre/ Anders Mossing, Lena Romtveit, Olav Strand
  • Trømsø Arctic University (UiT)/Morten Trydal, Dag Hvidsten, Bjørn-Erik Kristiansen
  • University in Agder (UiA)/ Lars Korslund, Sylvi Marlen Sandvik, Audun Slettan, Vivian Kjelland
  • University of Bergen (UiB)/ John-Arvid Grytnes, Anders Lundberg
  • University of Oslo (UiO), Laboratory for Freshwater Ecology/ Åge Brabrand, Svein J. Saltveit
  • University of Oslo (UiO), Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis/ Jonathan E. Colman, Sindre Eftestøl, Kjetil Flydal, Diress Tsegaye Alemu
  • University of South-Eastern Norway (USN), Department of Business and IT/ Dieu Tien Bui, Arne William Hjeltnes


  • Lindköping University, Scienvisic (SE)/ Thomas Chevalier, Jörgen Ahlberg
  • Linnaeus University (SE)/ Marie-José Gaillard-Lemdahl
  • Norrköpings Universitet (SE)/ Per-Eric Wilhelmsson
  • Swedish Defense Research Insitute, Lindköping (SE)/ Jonas Karlsson
  • Helsinki University (FI)/ Heikki Seppä, Sakari Salonen
  • Oulu University (FI)/ Ari Huusko
  • University of Bonn (DE)/ Olena Dubovyk, Jörg Löffler, Stef Weijers
  • VU University Amsterdam (NL)/ Pepijn Bakker, Paolo Scussolini, Ronald van Balen, Didier Roche
  • Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), Earth and Life Institute (BE) / Hugues Goosse
  • Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE) (FR)/ Didier Roche
  • University of Aberdeen (GB)/ Brice Rea, Matteo Spagnolo
  • University of Bristol (GB)/ Paul Valdes
  • Plymouth University (GB)/ Ralph Fyfe
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO; AU)/ Peter Caccetta
  • Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) Laboratory, University of Maryland (USA)/ Matthew Hansen

Ongoing research projects/PhD studies

Behind the Scene of Arctic-Alpine Greening – Implementing a Multi-Parameter Approach to Disentangle the Controls of Spatio-Temporal Variation in Dwarf-Shrub Growth. Group members involved: Roland Pape. Project partners: Jörg Löffler, Stef Weijers (Univ. Bonn). Funding: DFG, 2019-2021.

CULTCOAST. Cultural Heritage Sites in Arctic Coastal Areas. Monitor, Manage and Preserve Sites and Landscapes under Climate Change and Development Pressure. Group members involved: Hans Renssen. Project Partners: Vibeke Martens (coordinator, NIKU), Cecilie Flyen (SINTEF), Knut Stalsberg (NGU), Tom Dawson (Univ St Andrews). Funding: Norges Forskningsråd-MILJØFORSK, 2019-2021.

Long-Term Monitoring of Near-Surface Climatic Conditions, Vegetation and Reindeer Range Use at Filefjell. Group members involved: Roland Pape. Project partners: Anders Lundberg (UiB), Filefjell Reinlag. Funding: DFG (2008-2015, as part of the project TUNDRA: Thresholds of Utilisation, Natural Self-Regulation, Degradation, and Regeneration in the Arctic).

PhD project Nicolas de Pelsmaeker. Spatial distribution of the sheep tick in Norway. Group members involved: Øyvind Steifetten. Project partners: Lars Korslund (UiA). Funding: USN, 2017-2020.

PhD project Daniel Ariano Sanchez. Behavioural ecology of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle and the Guatemalan Beaded lizard during the breeding season. Group members involved: Stefanie Reinhardt. Project partners: Frank Rosell. Funding: Norpart/ UVG, 2017-2020.

PhD project Peter Aartsma. The impact of lichens on local climatic conditions with particular focus on albedo and soil temperature. Group members involved: Stefanie Reinhardt, Arvid Odland, Hans Renssen. Funding: USN, 2017-2020.

PhD project Jasmine Byrne.  The impact of climate change on tree line altitudes in Fennoscandia: past, present and future. Group members involved: Arvid Odland, Hans Renssen. Project partners: Dieu Tien Bui (USN, co-supervisor). Funding: USN, 2018-2021.

PhD project Marijanne Holtan. Estimation and monitoring of foraging-niche and resources for wild northern reindeer, with links to climate change models. Group members involved: Jan Heggenes, Arvid Odland. Funding: USN, 2019-2021.

PhD project Leif Kastdalen. Foraging-niche organization and adaptation by a large ungulate living in Alpine ecosystems challenged by climate changes: application of novel techniques for estimation and monitoring of critical habitat and feeding resources. Group members involved: Jan Heggenes, Arvid Odland. Funding: USN, 2018-2021.

PhD project Frank Arthur. Modelling and characterization of climate, environment and human impact during the four energy regimes. Part of TerraNova: The European Landscape Learning Initiative: Past and Future Environments and Energy Regimes shaping Policy Tools. Group members involved: Hans Renssen. Project partners: Didier Roche (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Marie-José Gaillard (Linnaeus University), Ralph Fyfe (Plymouth University). Funding: EU-H2020-MSCA-ITN-2018. 2019-2022.